Academic Journals: The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology In History

Jason Schmitt | The Blog | December 23, 2014

The music business was killed by Napster; movie theaters were derailed by digital streaming; traditional magazines are in crisis mode--yet in this digital information wild west: academic journals and the publishers who own them are posting higher profits than nearly any sector of commerce.  Academic publisher Elsevier, which owns a majority of the prestigious academic journals, has higher operating profits than Apple. In 2013, Elsevier posted 39 percent profits, according to Heather Morrison, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Information Studies in contrast to the 37 percent profit that Apple displayed.

This lucrative nature of academic publishing comes at a price--and that weight falls on the shoulders of the full higher education community which is already bearing the burden of significantly decreasing academic budgets. "A large research university will pay between $3-3.5 million a year in academic subscription fees --the majority of which goes to for-profit academic publishers," says Sam Gershman, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT who assumes his post as an assistant professor at Harvard next year. In contrast to the exorbitant prices for access, the majority of academic journals are produced, reviewed, and edited on a volunteer basis by academics who take part in the tasks for tenure and promotion.

"Even the Harvard University Library, which is the richest university library in the world, sent out a letter to the faculty saying that they can no longer afford to pay for all the journal subscriptions," says Gershman. While this current publishing environment is hard on large research institutions, it is wreaking havoc on small colleges and universities because these institutions cannot afford access to current academic information. This is clearly creating a problematic situation...